Poland already has many beautiful and award-winning buildings. But after a decade of enthusiastic building, a change in priorities has arrived. This year, it was clear that the debate on our spatial surroundings had taken on a whole new direction.
Returning to the river
Everybody who visited the River Wisła in Warsaw this summer could see with their own eyes how we had clearly thirsted universally-accessible public space. Thousands of people idling on the riverbanks during the warm days and nights took advantage of what was now on offer there: for some the attraction lay in the sandy beaches, while for others it was the lovely, clean and newly-opened walking boulevards. The Wisła had become one of the largest treasures in the capital – a place of rest and recreation in the middle of a large city, a terrain that did not impose a way of being, equally attractive for seniors, children, party-going teenagers and fitness enthusiasts. A place in which both elegant burghers and rebellious young people could feel good.
In 2017, which had been designated the Year of the Wisła River, another part of the western side of the river was opened to the public, and the results of a contest to design a third part of the river were also announced. And it was immediately clear how beneficial it is that the boulevards are built in levels. While the first revitalised part of the banks (opened in 2015) are just stone pavements, this new section offers many more attractions – fountains, climbable sculptures, and spots for hijinks. WXCA, the architecture studio that won this year's design contest for the next section of the boulevards, has planned roofed performance areas, airy pavilions and a lot of greenery. It seems other cities have similar visions in store – new riverside boulevards are coming to Wrocław, Konin, Łomża and Szczecin.
Everything for the people
The development of riverside boardwalks, the evolution of ideas for these well-liked and attractive urban areas shows that public spaces are now a key element in public debate. Over the last few years, our cities have changed for the better – not only have they been beautified, but they've also begun to many attractions that are available to all. Poles have started to come out of their homes – city planners as well as private investors are beginning to understand that it's worth looking after the spaces outside buildings because it's becoming expected from locals and clients.
This year's Architectural Prize of the Mayor of Warsaw was awarded to European Square – a public space formed by developers at the feet of a commerical skyscraper. In the autumn, a competition was opened to design the new so-called Central Square, namely a part of Parade Square, which is also to change its appearance for something more people-friendly. Five designs were chosen that were then subject to public consultation so that they could be later modified in accordance with the wishes of locals.
It's the planning, stupid
Architecture and urban planning were for a long time treated with neglect – very little was said about them, and nobody admitted how much influence they had on our lives, the way we spend time, our frames of mind. From the moment we began to see all this, we immediately began to make up for lost time with lightening speed. As explored at the annual Warsaw Under Construction exhibition, this tempo has caused certain errors – chaotic developments, urban sprawl, the commercialisation of space. Urban planning is a practice that demands time, specifically thinking many years ahead – we have not had time for this yet.
The year 2017 was the first time their was a noticeable tendency to slow down the frenzy to erect new large buildings. Perhaps we're beginning to appreciate the advantages of planning, plotting a vision for the future, designing cities not for here and now, but for the generations following us. In this process of changing priorities, will the new institution forged in 2017 by the Ministry of Culture come in useful? The National Institute of Architecture and Urban Planning, headed by architect Bolesław Stelmach, has amongst its duties 'conducting research on historical and contemporary architecture, urban planning and public space design, and then disseminating knowledge from these disciplines including the knowledge of the cultural good associated with them, via the means of educational, promotional and editorial activities' [editor's translation], so a lot of activities, the need for which everybody can easily discern when they look around and observe the development of urban areas.
The old renewed
An element of looking after the space around us is also having respect towards the things that have already been built. And that doesn't only apply to listed buildings, nor merely houses, but communities themselves. Revitilisation, because that's what we're talking about, according to definition ought to be 'introduced in a complex way, via integrated activities for the benefit of the local community, space, and economy'. Revitilisation programmes are being implemented in various Polish cities that want to improve the quality of life of their citizens as well as attract tourists and investors. Much in this regard has already been done in Bydgoszcz, where splendour has been restored to Mill Island and the largest canal system in Europe.
Meanwhile in Łódź, the revitilisation process has been multifaceted: on the one hand, renovations are being carried out on destroyed tenement houses, on the other, there are building the so-called New Centre of Łódź, which has been centred around the recently-opened and huge Łódź Fabryczna Station, with offices and cultural attractions placed in the converted former EC1 power plant. Local revitilisation programmes like this, usually for individual districts, are being introduced more and more often in Polish towns.
Facing an anniversary
The end of every year encourages us to look ahead at what awaits us in the coming months. Everything about the year 2018 will certainly be eclipsed by a certain anniversary – the centenary of Poland's regained independence. We already know that certain buildings that were meant to open for this occasion will not make it on time – neither the Museum of Polish History and the Polish Army Museum's new premises in Warsaw's Citadel, nor those of the Józef Piłsudski Museum in Sulejówek.
Perhaps it's a good thing that they will have more time to be ready, as it's worth considering what aims these buildings are meant to serve and how best to arrange their exhibits, and not repeat the fate of what happened in 2017 to the Museum of the Second World War. It's expressive architecture (designed by Kwadrat Architecture Studio) has garnered much praise from both the public and decision-makers. But it was rather different for the museum's exhibition: it became a disputed political football, which led it to lose many potential visitors.
Originally written in Polish, translated by AZ, Dec 2017